As February 24 marks one year of Russia's war in Ukraine, it also marks one year since Iran’s nuclear talks ended in Vienna, despite US reluctance to admit it.
In the days leading up to the invasion negotiators in the nuclear talks were scrambling to reach the finish line, promising to successfully conclude an arduous diplomatic process that had lasted eleven months. The United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany had been warning for weeks that Iran should make up its mind and the Vienna talks could not last indefinitely.
But in the second week of the Ukraine invasion, Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov dropped a bombshell, demanding an exemption from newly imposed Ukraine invasion sanctions for Moscow’s dealings with Iran.
Initially, it was said that Lavrov was demanding Western sanctions imposed on Russia not interfere with its nuclear dealings with Iran, but on March 6, a European diplomat in Vienna told Iran International that “Lavrov's demands were way above nuclear cooperation [allowed by the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran].”
The diplomat said that Russia's envoy in the Vienna talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, had first raised the issue of Ukraine sanctions only in relation to Moscow's role after a possible nuclear deal with Tehran, but Lavrov's remarks went much farther, demanding wider exemptions in dealings with Iran. That could open up a Russian sanctions-busting backdoor through Iran, an experienced operator in circumvention.
The following day, Iran’s chief negotiator, Ali Bagheri-Kani left from Vienna for Tehran, signaling the end to the talks.
It took another five months for the US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to warn that Iran was preparing to deliver military drones to Russia. Moscow began using the Kamikaze drones against Ukraine in early October, forcing Washington to finally say that the nuclear talks had reached an impasse.
However, the Biden administration seemed slow to realize the unwillingness of hardliners in Tehran to accept a deal, and Moscow’s ability to manipulate their intransigence.
"The new Russia-related sanctions are unrelated to the JCPOA and should not have any impact on its potential implementation," a State Department spokesperson said on March 5 adding that Washington continues to engage with Russia on a return to full implementation of the JCPOA. "Russia shares a common interest in ensuring Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. "
The writing was on the wall in early March that Moscow would hold an Iran nuclear agreement hostage and Tehran finding itself in more isolation would dance to Putin’s tune.
It seems the French knew it. "We are very close to an agreement − it is essential we conclude while we still can," foreign ministry spokeswoman Anne-Claire Legendre told reporters in a daily briefing March 8. "We are concerned by the risks that further delays could weigh on the possibility of concluding [a deal]."
However, the European Union, apparently with Washington’s blessing continued to push for an agreement, which increasing resembled chasing a bird which had flown away from the cage.
EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell visited Tehran in June and began drafting a text that he hoped the US and the Islamic Republic would accept, based on the Vienna negotiations that Russia was insisting was 99 percent complete.
By early October, finally the United States realized that the effort was going nowhere. By that time, popular protests led by women had broken out in Iran, catching the imagination of global audiences. The kamikaze drones were flying in dozens over Ukraine, and finally the administration conceded that it was no longer “focused” on the JCPOA.